In the 100 years between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, many well-to-do daughters of farmers, merchants, and ship captains were sent off to schools to learn fancy needlework. Months later, with strained eyes and pricked fingers, these girls, most of whom were in their early teens, proudly presented their parents with a sampler, a patch of linen about 15-by-20-inches painstakingly embroidered in 50 or more different stitches. A sampler might be decorated with the alphabet, numerals, houses, birds, or even a pious verse. The maker's name, age, and town might also be included. "They were framed and hung above the mantel as the family's most exciting possession," says Amy Finkel of M. Finkel & Daughter, a Philadelphia antique needlework dealer.
LOFTY. Collectors are just as excited about schoolgirl stitchery these days. At Sotheby's in New York recently, 135 samplers brought in $1.8 million, twice the presale estimate. An exquisite 1826 sampler by 14-year-old Anna Braddock of Burlington County, N.J., displaying a schoolhouse, children, and a barnyard, brought the top price of $145,500, three times the presale estimate.
At those lofty prices, samplers are snapped up by dealers, museums, and wealthy collectors. But many fine-quality works fall in the $500 to $5,000 range, and have been appreciating 10% to 20% annually for the past five years, says Finkel. Provenance makes a sampler more valuable, and many come with a tale. John Told, a dealer in Midway, Utah (801 785-5224), sold an 1840 sampler complete with a verse, alphabet, houses, and people, for $600. New Englander Eliza Parkin, 11, stitched the piece and her family prized the sampler so much that they tucked it among the few goods they were able to push in a handcart all the way to Utah.
Samplers are hot now with Americana collectors because "they're bright, colorful, and beguilingly childlike," says Nancy Druckman, director of Sotheby's Folk Art department. "They represent a simpler time in America when things were centered on the home." Finkel's Philadelphia gallery (215 627-7797) will host a six-day exhibit and sale of 85 samplers on Apr. 11. Prices range from $800 to $45,000.
Most samplers were produced under the tutelage of a schoolmistress and can be identified by region or even school. Many early Rhode Island samplers, for instance, have elaborate borders. Philadelphia seamstresses favored flowers and foliage. Students in Hingham, Mass., embroidered dark leaves highlighted by dots of light color.
Signed pieces can be easy to trace. If you're unsure of a sampler's lineage, the Textile Conservation Workshop (914 763-5805) will examine a sampler and recommend treatment for $75. (A dealer may not let you do this before a sale, however.) The report may include information on fibers, dyes, and country of origin to help date it. The cost to clean and restore a sampler is between $300 and $800. Period framing runs $250 to $1,000.
Samplers went out of vogue about 1850. Rich girls began pursuing academic studies, and women who did needlework turned to quilts and rugs. Girls in other countries, particularly England and Germany, made samplers as well, but domestic works are the ones prized by American collectors.
The most valuable samplers are visually appealing and "go to the heart," says Rose Adams of Faircloth/Adams (505 982-8700), a dealer in Santa Fe. They boast elaborate needlework pictures, not just bands of alphabets and numbers. Verses, such as "Virtue is the Road to Happiness" and "Then let us all prepare to die, since death is near and sure. And then it will not signify, if we are rich or poor" were generally chosen by the schoolmistress, not the girl doing the stitchwork. Many collectors prefer the more upbeat aphorisms.
QUIRKS. As with any collectible, the workmanship of a sampler is critical. "Look at the back. Neatness counts," advises William Ormond, a Salt Lake City textiles curator. So does condition. A sampler shouldn't be worn or faded. But mistakes don't always make it less valuable. "Sometimes words are misspelled, or [the maker] couldn't get an alphabet or verse all on one line," says Adams. So alphabets may be finished down the side of the sampler. Such quirks may add to the charm--and value--of the piece.
Even the most valuable samplers can be hung on a wall, though it's a good idea to let them sit in dark, temperature-controlled storage rooms for six months out of the year. They should also be protected behind glass that blocks out ultraviolet light. Grease and smoke will also stain samplers. That means that today's collectors, unlike the proud parents of yesteryear, shouldn't plan to display their samplers above the mantel.